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While the Fourth Crusade is really the archetypal Crusade in many respects—setting off to capture Jerusalem and conquering Constantinople instead really sums up the whole enterprise—the Second Crusade is the one that really set the tone for what the Crusades were capable of becoming. It started off with reasonable goals, fell apart in the planning stage, failed in its intended mission, and then fizzled out for good in a battle it had no real business fighting. That checks off a lot of Crusader boxes.
Called by Pope Eugenius III (d. 1153) in December 1145 (and again in March 1146), this second major expedition to the Holy Land (the whole Crusades numbering system is a conceit used by modern historians, so nobody around at the time would have referred to this as the “Second Crusade”) was supposed to relieve the Crusader states from the pressure they were feeling from a Turkic dynasty called the Zengi. Imad al-Din (“Pillar of the Faith”) Zengi (d. 1146) founded this dynasty by getting himself appointed governor of the cities of Aleppo and Mosul on behalf of the Great Seljuk Empire in the 1120s, then turning his dual governorship into a hereditary position by virtue of the fact that the Seljuk empire was too weak to stop him from doing so. Lots of Seljuk governors got away with this sort of thing at the time, not just Imad al-Din, but he was arguably the most successful of the lot.
Imad al-Din Zengi spent what seems like an unhealthy portion of his life trying to add Damascus to his burgeoning little kingdom, but the governors of Damascus always managed to keep him at bay. So in 1144 he took a break from trying to conquer that city and turned his attention toward some lower-hanging fruit: the Crusader County of Edessa (in modern Turkey, in the upper Euphrates region). His conquest of Edessa, the first major defeat the Crusaders had suffered since their capture of Jerusalem in 1099, panicked Pope Eugenius enough to get him to call for a new expedition. Imad al-Din tried at least once more to capture Damascus, but he was assassinated in 1146 by one of his slaves (it’s not entirely clear why). In the chaos that followed, the Count of Edessa, Jocelin II, was briefly able to retake his County. But he was quickly driven out again by Nur al-Din Zengi (d. 1174), Imad al-Din’s son and his heir in Aleppo.
What would come to be known as the Second Crusade amassed what should have been a heck of an army, mostly on the strength of a charismatic Cistercian preacher named Bernard of Clairvaux (d. 1153). Bernard changed the rhetoric of the First Crusade (in which participants had been promised spiritual rewards for aiding the Byzantines and capturing Jerusalem) to make participation in the Crusade itself, not the successful completion of its goals, the path to those rewards. Since Jerusalem was still in Christian hands, there really was no goal left in the East that could have enticed a bunch of European knights to risk their lives for it, but making the campaign itself a holy act (a martial pilgrimage, effectively) seemed to do the trick.
Bernard traveled throughout Europe preaching about the importance of the Crusade, as Peter the Hermit had done for the First Crusade. Just as Peter did, Bernard found lots of knights ready to take the cross. He also, like Peter, found lots of good Christian folk who couldn’t afford to go to the Holy Land but were happy to go torch a Jewish neighborhood or two and kill all the Jews living there instead. In his defense, Bernard seems to have repeatedly told people not to do that sort of thing, but they apparently didn’t listen.
Most importantly for Bernard, King Louis VII of France (d. 1180) agreed to go on crusade, so the campaign was assured of having at least one major monarch and one major army. While Louis’ commitment was welcomed by all concerned, one ruler the Pope didn’t want making the Crusade was Conrad III, the Holy Roman Emperor (d. 1152). Eugenius, you see, was relying on Conrad to defend Rome from the Norman King Roger II of Sicily (d. 1154). Bernard didn’t set out to recruit Conrad at first, but before long Germany was rife with Crusading fever. Bernard, caught up in the excitement himself, decided that Eugenius could get bent and got Conrad’s (reluctant) agreement to participate. Roger actually offered to transport the armies to the Holy Land, on the condition that they make one tiny side trip to sack Constantinople and let Roger take most of the booty home with him. Louis passed on that offer, but it appears to have planted a seed as we’ll see below.
Things got off to catastrophic start when Conrad made it to Constantinople on September 10, 1147, before Louis. Byzantine Emperor Manuel I Komnenos (d. 1180) were pretty unhappy at the whole idea of the crusade. Why, you ask? Well, for one thing, the First Crusade had been a complete bust from Constantinople’s perspective. It had captured Jerusalem, sure, but that didn’t help the Byzantines. In point of fact, the Crusaders had done virtually nothing to help the Byzantines. For another thing, the Byzantines were actually on OK terms with the Seljuks at the time, and they didn’t want the Crusaders messing up that arrangement. And last but not least, if Conrad was on Crusade that meant that he wasn’t helping Manuel and Eugenius to deal with their collective Norman problem.
So the Byzantines weren’t interested in housing and supplying a Crusader army that offered them nothing but problems. Instead of waiting for Louis to arrive so the whole army could cross into Asia at the same time—which would have been, you know, smart—Conrad and Manuel mutually agreed that the Crusaders should shove off ASAP.
Conrad figured he would follow the same route as the First Crusade, which would have taken his army to Edessa while, so he thought, passing much of the way safely in Byzantine territory. He was so confident of his plan that he even divided his army and put half of it under the command of his brother, Otto, so that Conrad and the stronger knights could take the harder but faster overland route while Otto and the weaker forces could take the safer but longer coastal one. This was a huge mistake. Conrad’s army met the Seljuks at Dorylaeum, in northwest Anatolia, and on October 25 it was virtually annihilated. Otto’s force met a similar fate a few months later. So a little over a month into the campaign, half of the Crusader army was off the board.
Louis and his army arrived in Constantinople in early October. They were comparatively treated pretty well by Manuel, who wasn’t personally angry with Louis the way he was with Conrad. The French forces crossed into Asia and met with Conrad, whose army had been almost totally wiped out, and together they headed toward Jerusalem. Conrad took ill along the way and went back to Constantinople, while Louis’ army was constantly harassed both by the Seljuks and by the Byzantines, whose forces—having taken some lessons from the way the First Crusade unfolded—were on alert to protect Byzantine subjects from the Crusader army.
Eventually Louis got tired of marching overland and tried to hire ships to ferry his army to Antioch, but he just couldn’t find enough vessels for the job. So he loaded clergy, nobles, and of course himself on to whatever ships he could find and told his army that he’d see them all in Antioch before taking off. He got to Antioch just fine, but the the Seljuks massacred the army at the Battle of Mount Cadmus, near Laodicea (in southwest Anatolia), on January 6, 1148. Now the other half of the Crusader army was off the board, and any chance of retaking Edessa from the Zengis was kaput.
Raymond of Antioch, who among other things was the uncle of Louis’ very rich wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, saw a way to salvage this disaster by putting Louis’ remaining troops, and especially his money, in the service of a campaign to capture Aleppo. He convinced his niece, who was apparently enthralled to him for some reason, to threaten annulment if Louis refused. Louis had her arrested and sailed for Jerusalem instead, where he was joined by Conrad (who had in the interim hired a mercenary army) and some additional knights from France. In June 1148, this force that had set out to recapture Edessa and flirted with the idea of attacking Aleppo now decided, in its inimitable Crusader style, to attack…Damascus.
This was a remarkably bad decision. Damascus, despite being a Muslim city, had been allied with the Crusaders since the days when they were both fending off Imad al-Din, but the Crusaders feared that the city was on the verge of falling into Nur al-Din’s hands, which to be fair it may well have been. Instead of attacking Nur al-Din in Aleppo and trying to relieve the pressure on Damascus, they figured it would be easier to betray their ally and capture Damascus for themselves. It was certainly dumber, but not so much easier. Nevertheless, on July 24, 1148, they laid siege to the former capital of the Umayyad Caliphate and one of the grandest cities in the Islamic world.
The Crusaders set out to attack Damascus from the west, where they would approach through orchards that offered access to water and a steady supply of both food and lumber. But the orchards were also well-defended, and even though the Crusaders were able to establish a camp among the orchards they remained vulnerable to ambushes within the forested terrain. So on July 27 they decided to attack the city from the east instead. The eastern approach was over an open plain, which meant no more ambushes, but it also offered far less shelter, food, and water to the Crusaders.
It’s time for Nur al-Din Zengi to make his triumphant return to our story. He and his brother Sayf al-Din, who had inherited Mosul from Imad al-Din, were by this point in Homs with a large relief army they’d put together at Damascus’ request. So when the Crusaders moved their camp and realized, fairly quickly, that they’d made a mistake in doing so, they couldn’t afford to move back to their original position because they’d have been vulnerable to attack. They began packing up on July 28, and by July 29 the army, or what was left of it, had limped back to Jerusalem. Conrad left for Europe not long after, but Louis stayed behind to try to see if he could wring something positive out of this experience, or at least keep his marriage together. He failed on both counts.
In some ways the Second Crusade laid the groundwork for the two crusades that followed. Remember how I mentioned that Roger II had planted a seed when he suggested the Crusaders sack Constantinople for him? Well, Louis was so angry at the Byzantines by the time he finally did go back to France that he proclaimed that he and the Normans were going to make a new Crusade against Constantinople. While they never got any support for this, as Crusades historian Thomas Madden writes in his The Concise History of the Crusades (a decent pick if you’re looking for a single-volume history of the Crusades), “the perception that the Byzantines were part of the problem rather than the solution became widespread.” Foreshadowing.
Elsewhere in Europe, Bernard of Clairvaux spent the rest of his life blaming the sins of the Crusaders for the failure of the Crusade, which I guess is fair if you consider “dumb” to be a sin. Eleanor got her annulment and wound up marrying Henry II of England, as fans of James Goldman plays will already know. One of their sons, the future Richard I or Richard the Lionheart, played a small role in the Third Crusade.
Speaking of the Third Crusade, we should note what happened to the Muslim hero of this story, Nur al-Din Zengi. He spent the next decade or so bringing both Mosul and Damascus under his control, while continually harassing the Crusader states. With Syria stable and united, everybody’s attention turned to the crumbling Fatimid Caliphate in Egypt. In the mid-1160s, an ousted Fatimid vizier named Shawar asked Nur al-Din to put him back in office, and so Nur al-Din sent an army under a general named Shirkuh to do the job. Shawar betrayed the Zengids and made an alliance with the Crusaders once back in power, but that alliance fell apart toward the end of the decade and the Egyptians once again turned to Nur al-Din for help. This time he installed Shirkuh as the new Fatimid vizier. Shirkuh died shortly thereafter, in 1169, and was succeeded by his nephew, Salah al-Din or Saladin. He also had a small role to play in later events.